Book on Dykstra exposes tragic slide

Posted: April 02, 2013

At 1 a.m. on May 7, 1991, Lenny Dykstra, drunk as he sped along winding Darby-Paoli Road in Radnor Township, slammed his red Mercedes sports car into a tree. The then-Phillies centerfielder escaped with fractured ribs and a broken collarbone.

Twenty-two years later, that car crash remains an apt metaphor for Dykstra's life.

Laws and limits aren't made for him. Dykstra is a self-powered machine bound for self-destruction. He races through life headfirst, heedless of others, an irresistible force in search of immovable objects.

Since the mercurial ballplayer's retirement in 1996, the pace of those collisions has accelerated, the carnage has grown more severe. And the wreckage? Well, all these years later we still can't take our eyes off it.

Dykstra, 50 now and imprisoned in California, has lost his family, his money, and, as a fascinating new book on his equally fascinating unraveling makes clear, maybe his mind.

Christopher Frankie, a former business associate and a victim of Dykstra's most recent pile up, has written a richly detailed but disturbing book on the enigmatic man-child, "Nailed! The Improbable Rise and Spectacular Fall of Lenny Dykstra."

Sadly but not surprisingly, it is an autopsy on how an ex-ballplayer who always lived on the edge plunged into the abyss.

Like so many before, Frankie would be charmed then reviled. Dykstra hired the journalist to work for his failed Players Club magazine (full disclosure: Dykstra contracted me to write a pair of stories for the short-lived publication), but soon he'd became his boss' caretaker, fixer, confidant and ultimately target for abuse.

"The redeeming qualities that first made me trust him," Frankie writes, "were buried beneath severe, toxic paranoia, apparent substance abuse, reckless abandon, and a complete detachment from reality. It was only a matter of time, I suspected, before he would end up in jail . . . or worse."

Broke and severely broken by then, Dykstra did, of course, wind up in jail, sentenced to three years in December 2012 on a variety of charges that included grand theft auto and financial fraud. The winding road that led him to this latest smash-up is this story's focus - and it's a not a story for the faint-hearted.

Crude behavior

As Dykstra's life and post-baseball career enterprises unwound late in the first decade of the new millennium, he doubled down on the unspeakably crude behavior that once, when he was leading the Mets and Phillies to World Series, was laughed off as Lenny being Lenny:

Obscene advances to women. Threatening phone calls and e-mails to employees. Estrangement from family and friends. Drug and alcohol abuse. Reckless spending and borrowing. Illegal business practices.

Frankie notes that Dykstra's downfall likely began when he was a mischievous Southern California youngster who had been abandoned by his natural father. But the episode that triggered its denouement began when, after losing millions in the stock market, he connected with Jim Cramer, the Wall Street investment guru and die-hard Philadelphia sports fan.

Dykstra studied the market. Cramer gave him advice and, eventually, a column on his influential website, The ballplayer revived his bank account and his reputation. In a burst of arrogant bravado, he bought Wayne Gretzky's California mansion, a fleet of expensive cars and whatever else he felt like. More importantly, all these years after his playing days, he became a media curiosity again.

That led to what essentially was an HBO Real Sports puff piece on "Dykstra the Stock Market Savant," which in turn resulted in even more media coverage for the fly catcher turned stock picker.

"If there was one guy we thought was going to be successful in the stock market, it would not have been Lenny," Gary Carter, his late teammate told the author.

Gradually, Dykstra's mask melted away. In one ridiculous interview on Fox and Friends, the out-of-shape former athlete, re-enacting his brawl with Dodgers catcher Rick Demspey, wrestled with co-host Brian Kilmeade, pulling a hamstring in the process.

Dykstra parlayed the media attention into what would be his fatal venture. The Players Club was the name of what was supposed to be both an entity that could provide an array of financial and personal services to millionaire athletes and the glossy magazine that would showcase those same superstars.

An interesting concept, Frankie and others were lured to the enterprise that was launched with the kind of no-limit glitz Dykstra admired. But soon the house of cards began to tumble. Rents and salaries weren't paid. Commitments evaporated. As the money disappeared, so did the always paper-thin veneer of respectability Dykstra had typically managed to summon when necessary.

Paranoia gripped him

Spiraling out of control, he borrowed and stole money, begged his mother for her credit card, lost his wife, his home, his cars. If anyone dared challenge him, he exploded, often irrationally and obscenely. When his book agent demanded that he repay the $250,000 he'd lent him, Dykstra responded with one of the few e-mails fit for a family newspaper.

"Hey, tough guy, it will be fun to see how you hold after you are $1.0 [million] dollars in after paying legal bills?" he wrote. "But if this is the way you want to play it - then let's get it on! BY THE WAY, YOU ARE FIRED! BY THE WAY, I do need you to reimburse me for the two private jet rides AND HOTELS."

Mind and body gave way. Paranoia gripped him. He told friends that a fortune teller had foreseen his doom and that, "Someone's going to get me."

"Just listening to Lenny speak - he was practically incoherent," said Wally Backman, who'd played with him in Philadelphia and New York. "He was whispering, mumbling . . . It was sad to see what'd happened to him. It broke my heart."

One of the countless examples of bizarre behavior involved Doc Gooden. The pitcher, who had long struggled with drugs and alcohol, was part of a reality TV show in which he'd checked himself into a celebrity rehab facility. Dykstra, believing his former Mets teammate was being held against his will, "showed up unprompted, unannounced, and attempted to break Gooden out of the facility."

"He thought I'd been hypnotized [and was being held] hostage," Gooden told a radio station.

For Phillies fans who recall Dykstra in slightly more coherent days, Frankie's book provides some interesting revelations. Among them:

After friend and former business partner Lindsay Jones and he parted ways, Jones' subsequent lawsuit claimed that Dykstra had indeed abused steroids while with the Phillies and that he also gambled on the team's games in 1993.

The dislike between Dykstra and Phils closer Mitch Williams went deeper than what was known. Dykstra blamed Williams - "he's a barrel-finder" - for the '93 World Series loss. Williams said his former teammate was "the most common sense-void person I've ever met in my life. . . . You could have a better conversation with a tree."

Teammates often had concerns about Dykstra's health, "There was one night before a game, Dykstra had blood coming out of both his ears. . . . Obviously, you knew it wasn't going to end well."

Minutes after telling HBO's Bernard Goldberg on camera that he hadn't abused steroids in Philadelphia, he told the reporter, off the record, that he had. Then he denied it again in a later phone call with Goldberg.

For all its painstaking detail and first-hand insights, at some point, Frankie's recounting overdoses. The litany of truly awful behavior becomes redundant, almost too difficult to bear.

But as always seems to be the case with this tragically flawed but oddly compelling character, we can't look away. All that remains for voyeurs like us, it seems, is Dykstra's final car wreck.

Frank Fitzpatrick is an Inquirer staff writer who covered the Phillies when Dykstra was the team's star.

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